Bread and Circuses

By: Masha Shollar  |  November 3, 2016


This entire election cycle has just felt like a bad dream, something sort of Kafka-esque. After all, the insanity of the past year’s politics seems about as improbable as wakening to find you’ve become an enormous cockroach.

If you would have told the average voter last summer that the final two choices would come down to Trump and Clinton, they probably would have laughed. But this isn’t last summer. Rather like with a reality TV show, the entire country watched, baffled, as the two least popular contestants hung on week after week, somehow escaping the ignominious fate of being voted off of the island.

But if we were to frame the election in terms of reality TV, I suppose we couldn’t have asked for a more dramatic finale. The two least likely candidates, battling it out for the title of most begrudgingly elected head of state. Politics itself is a field often infested by the ridiculous: double speak, scandals, posturing and empty promises are about as rampant as they could be. But it’s a dubious distinction that, despite the already laughably low standards for politicians, our election cycle has lowered the bar even further. If this were a game of limbo, even Olympic gymnasts couldn’t contort themselves underneath.

This isn’t shocking for anyone, given that, when polls open in a few days, many will be choosing between an egoist with no moral compass and a woman currently under investigation by the FBI for a possible breach of confidential government information.

So what to do when your social media pages are deluged with ads urging you to vote, telling you that you are lucky to live in such a wonderful country as this, where the leaders are elected by the will of the people?

Because I’d hazard a guess that these candidates are not the will of the people: the millennials and many staunch Democrats flocked to Sanders, embracing him as the messiah, while numerous Republican party members have pulled their endorsements of Trump, and his own running mate has taken great pains to distance himself from every aspect of the campaign that smacks of scandal.

When facing an election cycle that’s been as brutal, embarrassing and disillusioning as this one, it’s easy to just call it a day. In fact, many people are: faced with a choice between a man they loath and a woman they don’t trust, some have chosen not to pick. And yes, choosing not to vote —choosing not to do anything—is also a choice, not merely an abstention from one.

But isn’t that the whole point? We are told, and often, to vote our conscience. That is one of the founding principles of this country, after all. When faced with a choice between two things one cannot support, is it so wrong to decided to choose neither?

For the past year and a half, I’ve followed the election closely, gorging myself on candidate rundowns, policy positions, breaking news alerts, in depth analyses, and scandal after scandal. Now, as we approach the end of the most grueling election cycle in living memory, I don’t feel enthusiastic or excited—I don’t even really feel relief. There’s just a sense of bored exhaustion.

Through it all, one phrase kept popping into my mind: “Panem et Circenses,” or, “bread and circuses.” Coined by the Roman satirical poet Juvenal, the phrase refers to politicians who generate public approval through mere distraction and superficiality. To me, there has always been another connotation: the phrase makes me think of the hedonistic days of ancient Rome, when the pastime was to observe a duel to the death.

Because this past year and a half has felt more like a gladiator match than anything else: it certainly doesn’t project the image of a civilized and modern election. Watching the candidates go at it, I often felt that we were all seated in an arena, cameras and microphones and Facebook statuses at the ready, so we could capture each blow in this fight to the death. I am not naive enough to believe that politics and politicians are meritorious simply because they work in the public sector, but I don’t think I could have ever predicted a battle descending to this level. This has been a no holds barred, fight a lion with a net or your bare hands, knock down, dirty scrimmage. And in a few days, we will each put a thumb up or down, and one will emerge from the arena, having won by sheer dint of managing to hold on for longer.

So I’m not surprised by the disillusionment so many feel. What surprises me more is how many people still feel invested. Those who will be voting for the first time ever are receiving a dubious honor, the shabby gift of a tattered ballot, smeared with muddy footprints. And yet, many still intend to vote. Many even feel excited about it, ready to post “I voted” selfies and proudly display the sticker that says they made a choice for their future.

I am thoroughly fatigued and saddened by this election, and as November 8th draws near, a choice between two undesirables must be made, by me and by anyone else who wishes to vote.

But when I look around at my fellow students here, I feel something other than a sense of disillusionment. I see students educating themselves, struggling to learn the nuances of every policy issue, debating vigorously with friends and family, and asking themselves tough questions of morality.

And even as I grit my teeth and prepare for whatever is coming, I too try see the other side.

Because beneath the three ring circus, the clashes, the mud slinging and scandals and polarization, I look at my fellow students and see that all hope is not lost. Because though this may be the craziest election in living memory, so many will still be proudly heading to the polls, determined to share their voice and their vote.

I don’t know where we may go from here, but I think that’s a pretty good start.